Exhibit sheds new light on Chinese nationalism

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2012

Traditional exhibitions consist of multiple works hanging in a conventional white-walled space. But Jin Shan’s newest exhibition, “My dad is Li Gang!”  – which opened Sept. 1 in the David Winton Bell Gallery – turns the gallery into what the curator, Ian Russell, called “a yellow disco party.”
Every inch of the disco party – from the central sculptural piece to the specially constructed walls – seems to crawl with meaning. The gallery space itself is bathed in a yellow light, a reference to an ethnic stereotype, Russell said. The light reflects off a replica of China’s Tiangong 1 space station, representative of China’s emerging position of power in the space race, as well as the nationalist sentiments that accompany it.
This replica is covered with small mirrors, much like a disco ball, and thereby creates fractured and distorted reflections. “He is taking the space station – something that might inspire national pride – and saying, ‘This gesture of pride or ambition or of technological achievement is actually something that is rather perverse or distorts everything around it,'” explained Russell, who collaborated with Jin on the installation.
The station turns and appears to be powered by a three-wheeled bicycle, a means of transport used by migrant workers in Shanghai. “The energy that is powering the nationalist ambition of China is this exploited manual labor,” Russell said. The bike appears to be melting, as if from the heat of the fallen space station.
These workers are once again referenced on the gritty, plaster walls of the gallery, which have been bashed and marked with silicone casts of the hands of actual migrant workers.
By playing all of this out in the scene of a disco, Jin uses contrast to share his point of view in a satirical way. At first, the viewer confronts a fun, bold atmosphere. “It’s hard to not walk into the gallery and smile a little. You’re kind of like, ‘Really? This is kind of ridiculous, but amazing,'” Russell said.  
But upon closer inspection, visitors become privy to the beaten walls and unglamorous cast bicycle. Beneath the initial playful experience is a deep criticism and serious commentary on the political and social problems of China.
This use of contrast is a trademark of Jin’s, setting him apart from other Chinese artists looking to make political statements. “He finds a way for people to laugh at and enjoy his work, but then it is really like a Trojan horse. What’s inside it is a condemnation,” Russell said.
Another important message of the work comes with its title, which is a popular meme in China. “My dad is Li Gang!” became a famous phrase after a hit-and-run accident in 2010 involving the son of a local police officer, who hit two students – killing one – and left the scene threatening, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!”
This message conveys a key social problem in China – the unwavering power of those in charge and the helplessness of those of lower statuses. The meme also represents the power of society, especially when using social media. Once the movement and disapproval of the incident grew strong enough, the son of the police officer was punished for his crime. Jin hopes that the audience hears this title and not only considers the problematic power struggle, but also the strong voice of citizen activism that is developing in China – his art being one component of this voice, Russell said.
“People in the U.S. may not know that there is a hugely engaged society in China trying to hold the political system and its power structures to accountability,” he said.
Brenda Zhang ’13, a visual arts concentrator, worked as an artist’s assistant on the installation along with Jane Tracy ’14 and Anna Muselmann ’14. From the student perspective, Zhang said she thinks the exhibit will help students “understand the individual experience of a lot of the controversial political issues that are going on in China revolving around individual freedom and government corruption.”
As an artist in this social movement, Jin is based in Shanghai, where Russell first met him. “He had a wonderful personality and very quick wit, but he also had serious things to say about society, culture and politics. He wraps that up in an affable, humorous, playful personality,” Russell said.
Because Jin is a relatively young emerging artist, Russell said he hopes that Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students will feel more able to relate to Jin than to other artists. “Bold and powerful work can be realized by young and emerging artists when they are given the opportunity,” Russell said. “I can draw a pretty clear line from a visual arts student (and) how they can get from where they are to where Jin Shan is.”
After working with Jin150
150, Russell and the studio technicians, Zhang said she feels like she learned quite a bit that can help her make that connection and succeed in the art world.  
“As little logistical things came up, he would just roll with it because he knew what he wanted his message to be and his art to be about,” Zhang said. “That was really cool to be around as an art student who sometimes gets … frustrated when something isn’t working. He is a great role model in that sense.”
There will be an opening reception for the work tonight at 5:30 p.m. in the List Art Center Auditorium.